An American spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, has been cleared to fly FAA-licensed spaceflights following the conclusion of an FAA inquiry that focused on air traffic control clearance and real-time mission notification related to the Unity 22 flight in July.
On July 11, Virgin Galactic performed its first fully-manned flight with the SpaceShip Two Unity craft, which carried founder Richard Branson and five others on board. At the end of the flight, they landed safely, but some incidents that occurred during the undertaking led to an investigation by the FAA.
The FAA determined that the spacecraft had deviated from its assigned airspace for a minute and 41 seconds and failed to report the error as required. However, it accepted Virgin Galactic’s proposal to expand the protected airspace for a wider array of possible trajectories and to communicate with air traffic control in real-time during flights.
“Our entire approach to spaceflight is guided by a fundamental commitment to safety at every level, including our spaceflight system and our test flight program,” said Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic. “We appreciate the FAA’s thorough review of this inquiry. Our test flight program is specifically designed to continually improve our processes and procedures. The updates to our airspace and real-time mission notification protocols will strengthen our preparations as we move closer to the commercial launch of our spaceflight experience.”
A report in the New Yorker, published in September, claimed that the plane left the designated airspace and pilots saw a “red light” warning near the end of the powered flight indicating that the spacecraft had veered outside of its designated airspace for nearly two minutes, putting it at risk of an emergency landing. The spaceflight company said that the deviation was due to high altitude winds and that craft didn’t fly outside the lateral confines of its mandated airspace, which is designated to protect local populations and industry from potential disaster should the worst happen.
With the flight clearance in hand again, Virgin Galactic continues to focus on its pre-flight readiness for Unity 23. It may fly its next mission in mid-October.